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Local hero hopes to come home
Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler
SARASOTA, Fla. - The culture shock occurred long before Tuffy Rhodes left for Japan. He had never been in a world he couldn't dominate with a baseball bat.
He did it as a Knothole hero, step for step with his buddy, Ken Griffey Jr. He also did it at Western Hills High School, where, as Greater Cincinnati Co-Player of the Year - the honor was shared with Griffey, of course - he led the Mustangs to the 1986 state championship.
Rhodes actually lived in Avondale at the time, but he crossed town to attend the school that had produced, among others, Don Zimmer, Ed Brinkman and Pete Rose, who bought the fancy uniforms worn by Tuffy (even his mother called him that instead of Karl) and his West High teammates. To Rhodes, the tradition became a birthright.
A few weeks after he drove in several runs and pitched the final two innings of the state title game, the Houston Astros made Rhodes a third-round draft choice. At 22, he was in the big leagues; and, unfortunately, feeling like it.
"I had an attitude," he realizes now, as a 37-year-old outfielder attempting, against the odds, to return to the major leagues after 10 seasons away; and to his hometown after 20. "I was pretty macho. I wouldn't do the little rookie jokes, and I wouldn't let the veterans talk to me. I felt like they were trying to disrespect me, and I would argue back and forth and fight with my teammates.
"I thought I was a big shot. I didn't work hard. I didn't study, or do research, or go out there and take extra batting practice. I didn't feel like I needed it. I thought I could do it on talent alone. I had to learn the hard way. Sometimes you've got to get knocked down and get back up. I've been knocked down and got back up, and it changed the way I am as a professional."
But not right away. First, he had to be sent back down to the minor leagues. Twice. He had to be hurt. He had to be taken off the Astros' roster, after which, naturally, he refused another assignment back to the minors.
In 1994, he was the Chicago Cubs' starting right fielder on Opening Day. Dwight Gooden was pitching for the New York Mets. Rhodes homered against him in the first inning, and in the third, and in the fifth. Nobody had even done that in his first three at-bats of the season. Nobody had even done that to Dwight Gooden. Rhodes figured he was on his way. Everybody did.
The next year, the Cubs waived him. The Boston Red Sox picked him up and cut him. He was 27, painfully humbled and culturally shocked.
"I had no choice but to change," Rhodes says in blunt retrospect. And he had no choice but to do it in Japan, where attitudes don't work, where big shots - especially American ones - are not appreciated. "When I got to Japan, I realized this is the only place I can go to make money and play baseball.
"Japan changed me tremendously. I had to mature, grow up and be a man, and I did. The culture was the icing on the cake. That, and I had nowhere else to play."
In his first season with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Rhodes hit 27 home runs in a nearly full complement of 130 games. He overcame a knee injury by conditioning at a level he'd never known before, becoming stronger as a result. He also made important adjustments in the pride department.
"When I first got over there," Rhodes recalls with a soft smile, "I told myself I wasn't going to let a pitcher that was shorter than me get me out. When I started getting out a lot, I realized I had to change and I said I wasn't going to let a pitcher with high-top spikes get me out."
The home runs piled up, reaching a critical mass in 2001, when, with three games still to play, Rhodes tied Sadaharu Oh's single-season Japanese record of 55. The final games were against the Daiei Hawks, which Oh managed. In spite of complaints submitted to the Japanese commissioner, the eager American was walked every time he came to the plate.
"They tried to blame it on the catching coach," Rhodes reflects, "and I have no proof; but deep down inside I think it was Oh's decision not to pitch to me. He was trying to take my money from me, and I wasn't going to like that."
By then, Rhodes had achieved an astonishing celebrity status in Japan, where he had learned to crave the local cuisine and speak the native language. Even as he endeavors to earn a spot on the Reds' roster, his spring training exploits are chronicled daily by a Japanese journalist who is compiling a book on the country's most prolific foreign slugger.
The fame brought fortune, earning Rhodes in excess of $7 million in 2005, when, for the first time in his Asian career, he was compromised by injury. His home runs dropped off from 45 to 27, and his batting average from .287 to .240.
"People don't realize I had a torn labrum and a torn rotator cuff," he points out. "My team (the Yomiuri Giants) told me I was getting tendinitis, and I got like six cortisone shots in about a four-month period. I was playing from May until August with a torn labrum, and ended up having a 90 percent tear in my rotator cuff."
After surgery and rehab in Houston, where Rhodes lives with his 11-year-old son, he reports that his shoulder feels about 95 percent recovered. At his age, that will have to do.
It is by virtue of those concerns, and the usual international mysteries, that Rhodes ranks as one of the great uncertainties of the current spring. Of him, Reds manager Jerry Narron knows only the statistical log and what Rhodes tells him - specifically, that he can play all three outfield positions. It would consequently be no surprise if the prodigal veteran were retired before the season starts. Nor, given his record, would it be totally unforeseen if he whacked another 27 homers with about 90 RBIs.
"There's no in-between," he says. "I can't see myself playing in Triple-A.
"I had a great experience in Japan and I loved it, but all good things come to an end, and what a way to come back for a great ending of a great career. Hopefully, I'll make the Cincinnati Reds and end my career at home in Cincinnati. I feel that if I can live and play baseball in Japan, there's nothing I can't do."
Nevertheless, there now arises yet another culture shock for Rhodes to play through. After learning, in the artful Japanese style, to anticipate any pitch with any count at any time, he suddenly finds himself back in the land of the rising fastball.
And if he makes it all the way back to where it all started, he'll find, also, that Western Hills baseball is nothing like he knew it to be two decades ago, and long before.
"A lot of people told me West High has fallen off, and I couldn't believe it.
"If I get back to Cincinnati," promises Rhodes, "you best believe I have plans."
Contact Lonnie Wheeler at email@example.com.